Rennie, "Recipe for Communication on the Information Highway"
Government Information in Canada/Information gouvernementale au Canada, Volume 2, number/numéro 2 (fall/automne 1995)

Recipe for Communication on the
Information Highway 1

Don Rennie,
Treasury Board Secretariat of Canada 2

The Information Highway has potential to improve communications between government and citizen. However, government must be careful to avoid creation of a new breed of elites who have inordinate influence on public policy, at the expense of the technologically disenfranchised.

L'autoroute électronique offre des possibilités d'améliorer les communications entre le gouvernement et les citoyens. Le gouvernement doit cependant s'assurer d'éviter la création d'une nouvelle race d'élites ayant trop d'influence sur l'ordre public aux dépens des personnes privées de cette technologie.

While I am all for improved communications through better infrastructure -- and believe what you will, the Information Highway has potential to help Canadians communicate among themselves, and with others -- it is going to take more than a few Web sites, 486s and news groups to improve the quality of communications, both in this country and globally.

While it is true that technology is already making a difference in the speed and nature of information sharing, it is also true that relatively few Canadians are yet aboard the I-Way.

For those in the business of speaking with, and listening to, a broad cross section of society (governments at all levels share this responsibility), care must be taken not to regard technology in general, the highway in particular, as the answer to improving communications with Canadians. A solution, maybe, but not the solution.

While private citizens or private enterprise may consider the highway a valid means for providing or procuring information or for selling a product or cause, governments must be more wary. They must think of the millions of citizen/taxpayers who have not yet adapted to or adopted technology as a normal means of communications. Failing that, governments run the risk of creating a new breed of elites who have inordinate influence in public policy, at the expense of the technologically disenfranchised or disinclined.

Looking down the highway, then, the government task is twofold: to recognize the potential of the Information Highway, and to promote it as a gateway to enhanced national and global communications; and, to understand its limitations and not to neglect the millions of Canadians who still congest the secondary routes and rural routes of Canadian commerce.

The latter point was powerfully made in a speech presented recently by Lynn Toupin, who heads up the National Anti-Poverty Organization (NAPO). Lynn stated:

The fact that we have a functional illiteracy rate of about 24 percent is cause for concern regarding the Information Highway. If we are to develop a highly accessible system, it will have to be very user-friendly, and we are also going to have to be a lot more aggressive about solving the literacy problem in Canada.

Lynn Toupin is no Luddite, nor am I. But the message for governments is this: help pave and promote the highway; help make it vital and viable as a communications conduit among Canadians, and with others; but do not regard it as the panacea for communicating with Canadians, and for Canadians communicating with their public services.

As every public service in the country undergoes significant changes -- and in some instances, major make-overs -- the I-Way will be an important information ally but not the only one. The stress must continue to be placed on a communications mix that attempts to provide every Canadian with information that is available, accessible, and affordable.

One of my current responsibilities is to review the 1988 federal government communications policy and to modernize it in the face of, among other things, the leaps forward in technology. This has forced me both to understand technology better (though one of my colleagues still claims I think a hard drive is "from Ottawa to Peterborough"), and to take a hard look at why government communications is so often regarded as ineffectual, and what can be done to improve it.

There are, of course, many reasons for the low or failing grades that are often given government communications efforts, and just as many views on what can be done to improve the function's management and effectiveness.

Since governments at all levels are federations of departments and ministries, agencies and commissions, sectors and branches, programs and initiatives, political staff and public servants, generalizations are risky. I do, however, have five suggestions for any organization that sincerely wants to increase its market share in the areas of communications competence and public credibility:

1. Make internal communications a priority. Surveys consistently indicate that employee communications within many organizations is abysmal -- that managers and supervisors abdicate their responsibilities to keep staff informed about, or involved in, the process of continuing change that is a hallmark of the 1990s. Good communications begins within the organization. If employees do not feel a part (and partner) in an organization's efforts, that organization's capacity to communicate effectively externally is going to be seriously tested. Too often, it will fail;

2. Put feet to fire. From the CEO to COO right down through the organization, put a priority on communications -- in the recruitment of people, in their training and development, in their ongoing performance reviews. Have everyone, particularly managers, measured regularly on their competence in communicating with superiors, peers, subordinates, and external stakeholders. Recognize and reward those who "walk the talk", and set goals (and keep them) for those who don't. When an organization sends out a news release announcing an appointment, speak of the individual's communications skills as frequently as organizations now do with academic credentials and career moves;

3. Change, change, change. Don't think for a moment that what worked in the 1980s is axiomatically good enough for the 90s. Maybe, but not likely. We are in the process of a profound paradigm shift and communications is key to understanding change, and to coping with it. Focus your organization's best minds (not just the professional practitioners) on communications. Understand trends, public moods and expectations, wants and needs, tools and technologies for reaching others and having others reach you. Don't sit back and wait to be overwhelmed by change. Be a part of it;

4. Talk with, not to, those you serve and those who serve you. Whether an organization is private sector or public enterprise, it serves someone. Consult openly and honestly within the organization -- there are employees everywhere wanting to improve organizational performance and efficiency and they often have the energy, experience and expertise to do it -- and with your stakeholders. Consultation is not about deciding to do something, then trying to find a critical mass of support. Consultation is about open minds and partnerships. It is about building consensus and collective purpose. Don't demean the function through feigned interest in what others have to say or to offer; and

5. Be economical in thought, precise in expression. Let's all adopt the 5W and 1H journalists' approach to communication (who, what, when, where, why and how) and eliminate the too frequently bureaucratic penchant for smothering the public with unwanted, unneeded and irrelevant information. As we move more and more into communications through technology, the resolve and patience (not to mention, the eyes) of the recipient will be sorely tested. Just the facts would do quite nicely.

The most fundamental function of any democracy is communications. In that context, those of us who have views need to make them known.


[1] May be cited as/On peut citer comme suit:

Don Rennie, "Recipe for Communicating on the Information Highway," Government Information in Canada/Information gouvernementale au Canada, Vol. 2, no. 2.2 (fall 1995). <URL:>

[2] Don Rennie was a senior advisor in information policy in the Treasury Board Secretariat of Canada. We were saddened to learn that Mr. Rennie died accidentally shortly after contributing this article.


Letters to the Editor / Lettres au rédacteur en chef